A heated confrontation took place yesterday between the governor of North Sinai Abdel-Fattah Harhour and the Rafah Copts over their intention to leave town in the wake of threats against them by radical Islamists should they refuse to leave
Rafah an Islamic emirate
The crisis erupted some two weeks earlier when the Copts in Rafah on the Egypt Gaza border in North Sinai received handwritten threats thrown on their doorsteps by masked men on motorcycles. The notes read that: “Rafah is an Islamic emirate. No to Christians on the land of Islam.” The notes were signed in the name of Geish al-Badiya al-Islami (The Islamic Army of the Desert), and declared Rafah an Islamic emirate. The Copts were ordered to leave town in the matter of 48 hours.
When the Copts did not leave town, masked men on a motorcycle shot at Mamdouh Nassif, the Coptic owner of a grocery shop in Rafah, while in his shop. Nassif said that he threw himself on the floor to escape the shots which bombarded the chair he was sitting on. The refrigerators and the cabinets in the shop were damaged, and the glass front of the shop was shattered. Nassif said the armed forces patrol squad stationed close by never moved to investigate the matter till it received higher orders.
Fleeing for their lives
In the wake of this incident, the seven Coptic families living in Rafah realised that their lives and their children’s are threatened, especially with the free reign given to the radical Islamist armed groups there. After receiving the threats at their door steps, Gamal Ayad’s family, his three children and their families fled Rafah to Arish, leaving all their possessions behind. Joseph Riyad’s family, also leaving everything behind, left to Cairo, running for their lives.
A terrorised Fadya Abdel-Sayed, an employee in Rafah’s health department told Watani she sent her three children who are all of school age to relatives in Upper Egypt, for fear for their lives. Their schooling had been interrupted, which particularly poses a problem for he eldest daughter who is in her final school year. “In the absence of security,” Abdel-Sayed said, “what can we possibly do? For a full week now we haven’t been able to leave our homes. That’s why we asked the governor to transfer us to jobs similar to ours at Arish, on a temporary basis, and to provide us with shelter there, until security is restored in Rafah.” She pointed out that most Copts living in Arish are State employees who cannot afford a decent living in Arish which is a much more expensive place than Rafah, and cannot do without their State jobs.
Mursi: No forced eviction
Rafah’s Copts also demanded of the governor to protect their homes and their possessions in Rafah during their time in Arish and to swiftly rebuild their church, the Mar-Girgis and Holy Family church which was burned by radical Islamists during the chaos that came with the 25 January 2011 Revolution. In the wake of this incident, some 10 of the 17 Coptic [extended] families then living in Rafah left town.
A week ago Harhour had listened to the pleas of Rafah’s Copts and had decided to move the government employees among them to Arish and grant them temporary accommodation. But after the media uproar over the forced eviction of Rafah Copts, and the subsequent declaration by President Mursi that the Rafah Copts would not be forcefully evicted, Harhour reneged on his promise.
The governor’s “˜image”
Rafah’s Copts were incensed. In a four-hour meeting on Sunday between the Harhour, North Sinai Bishop Anba Qozman and the Coptic families in Rafah, the governor said the Copts should remain in Rafah and he would secure their protection. The Copts found this difficult to swallow; they heatedly argued that there is no police in Rafah to protect them and their children if they stay. Security forces in Rafah, they reminded, could not protect Rafah police station or the police patrol which was attacked 39 times after the Revolution, the last time was last week. The governor, however, stood his ground, insisting he will not allow the Copts to behave so as to tarnish his image before the media, or to place him in the light of one unable to stand up to terrorist might.
The shocked Copts insisted they would leave Rafah, for fear for their lives and their children’s, even if at the cost of their jobs.
The four-hour long meeting with the governor finally ended, however, with the Copts persuaded to stay on in Rafah, amidst pledges by the governor that he would protect them, and provide security to Rafah.
For his part, Anba Qozman announced that the relevant authorities pledged to restore security in Rafah within the next few hours.